In recent decades, researchers and archivists have turned to crowdsourcing as means to get large collections of historic archival material digitized. This has exponentially increased the amount of research resources that are easier to find and use because digitized collections are available online. Someday, it might be possible to complete an entire historic research project without ever having to leave your office (or home), if all of the sources you required where just a few clicks away. It would make research easier and more cost effective. Traveling to distant archives requires a significant investment in time and funds. That being said, despite the logistical and economic advantages with digital research, there really is no aesthetic substitute for actually thumbing through folders containing old documents. There is something ethereal about touching, smelling and deciphering historic documents that will never be satisfied by online ease of access. There is a sense of mentally transporting oneself back in time when handling “the real thing” that connects you mentally and emotionally to persons and events of the past. I sincerely hope that visits to the archives do not become entirely replaced by digital research methods!
Nevertheless, there is just so much material inside of archives, that the only way the vast quantity of it will ever become more accessible to researchers is by crowdsourcing. Sure, an archive or repository can dedicate a staff member, or if sufficiently funded a small group of staff members, to digitizing and getting the material into the online world. However, this is a slow process, and would take forever to complete it. Crowdsourcing is really the only way that resources are going to make accessibility happen in the short span of our lifetimes. If volunteer armies of transcribers can be recruited, then the dedicated archives staff can supervise the process ensuring that the work is done accurately and professionally. Crowdsourcing transcribers provides an amazing opportunity for history buffs to become engaged in the historic research process. Many people have a strong interest in history, and if they thought they could make a living doing it they would have considered it more seriously back in their college days (I took the option seriously, and sometimes I wonder why I did, but let’s not get into that now!). It gives people a chance to connect with history in a real and meaningful way. It gives interested people a chance to delve into history deeper beyond learning facts, names, events and dates. Nothing makes history more real than deciphering and transcribing actual documents created by historic people!
Paper documentation seems to be the best type of historic resource amenable to transcription and digitization. There are stacks, shelves, boxes and folders teeming in the archives that are just waiting to be cracked open and see the light of day (or the study carrel) again. But really, most types of archival material would be suitable for digitization – photographs, physical objects and the like. In some cases, the long-term stability and curation of rare and fragile objects would benefit from becoming digitally accessed. It would reduce the need to actually physically handle such objects. Some type of materials, such as older types of sound and video recordings, require advanced technical knowledge and equipment that of necessity will require trained professionals to process first before the materials can be crowdsourced for transcription. Also, all archival resources will require some degree of historical contextualization, so that people can make sense of how the resources can be utilized effectively for historic research projects.
The possibilities for crowdsourcing and making digital collections online accessible are endless. For example, my own research involves the American Civil War. There is a metric ton of documents about the Civil War Era in the National Archives. And there are a half a dozen National Archives scattered across the country that contain these various records. For the most part, researchers still have to go to the National Archives and manually make their way through this massive, vast set of records. One can narrow down where to look, but it is a time consuming and expensive process to go and stay in Washington D.C. for days or weeks to obtain the data you might need. If the National Archives records were digitized and online, this process would be much easier. This data could be disseminated much more effectively if crowd-sourcers transcribed it and made it more widely available. In an ideal world of unlimited time, funds and people power, this is the project (while gargantuan in scope) I would like to see occur in my lifetime!